The appeal of post-apocalyptic narratives

Post-apocalyptic fiction is perhaps my favourite type of story; the concept alone is open to vastly different interpretations and there is the chance to create a thematically rich and engrossing world. However, even with these many different variables the core focus of post-apocalyptic narratives remains the same: survival (be it anything from an individual, to a small group of people, to entire tribes or settlements). The element of survival is gripping and this basic human desire creates some of fictions greatest morally grey or corrupt characters, as situations presented are often much more extreme than the challenges found in other genres. This conflict of character is always a highlight – how far will someone go to survive and is the adjustment to this harsh and barbaric way of life worth it?

And there’s the thing I’ve been wondering recently about post-apocalyptic fiction: why do I enjoy these narratives so much, when, ultimately, it’s never “worth it” to survive in this world? The vast majority of stories that take place in a post-apocalyptic scenario are bleak and unforgiving where people barely survive, and the idea of actually living again is a pipe dream. It’s this hope that the characters will live again at some point that gives us the strength to endure these stories as without this hope we’re only watching the characters’ misery. Though never actually seeing the protagonists live is becoming a problem; in a climate where post-apocalyptic fiction is widespread, very rarely do the characters have viable reasons to live. Sure, there’s the basic need to survive, but there needs to be something to survive for. Watching someone trying to survive is interesting, but knowing why someone is trying to survives creates a deeper and more emotional connection. It’s just a shame that a lot of recent fiction ignores this or glances over it, the most popular and worst offender being AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Thinking about this recently I questioned my enjoyment of these narratives – why do I want to invest in characters who have no hope? Who have nothing to live for? That’s not appealing to me, the more I think about it. Sure, the characters decisions and development are still there, but there’s a certain impact lost when it’s all for nothing. I’m not saying that these works of fiction need a Hollywood ending, such a thing would be contradictory to the genre, but there needs to be something more than just surviving – there needs to be a reason to survive. Usually, a good post-apocalyptic work of fiction gives this reason. Sometimes it’s just the hope that the world can return to what it once was. Sometimes it’s the hope that there’ll be a way to thrive in this new landscape. Sometimes it’s as basic as the strong impact of love and companionship. This is the case in the great Cormac McCarthy novel, The Road, where the main character endures the harsh landscape because of his child, and admits many times that, without him, he would have been dead a long time ago. While the film has the same bleak ending as the book, it adds the allusion that animals and plant life may not have been entirely wiped out. While it’s not concrete, the hope of what might be gives the characters a reason to keep pushing on.

With the over-saturation of the post-apocalyptic genre recently, it’s becoming harder and harder to find a worthy piece of work. Increasingly we are seeing works that lose the character moments and themes in favour of action. I think this genre needs to take step back from the likes of The Walking Dead (which, ironically, has a comic book incarnation that avoids most of the complaints here) where the lack of hope or lack of character motivation creates an unforgiving and desolate world that in the end, is just no fun to be a part of. Even the bleakest of stories need a little levity to not become unbearable.

This entry was posted in Features and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.